Has anyone noticed that Marquette is right on the heels of Syracuse in the Big East race? Not only that, but that the Golden Eagles are the only team within a game of the frontrunning Orange? Marquette has quietly rattled off six straight wins, including a come-from-behind effort at Villanova on Saturday. When Georgetown was unable to handle the same kind of road test at Pitt, MU had second place in the Big East all to themselves.
Marquette has usurped Cincinnati as the Big East’s sleeper team in the Midwest. While the Golden Eagles have soared, the Bearcats have struggled, as their three straight losses pull them back to the back. The SportsNotebook takes a look at both MU and Cincy today—how their teams are put together, what’s characterized the recent streaks and what lies ahead.
Marquette (18-4, 7-2): Buzz Williams’ team is guard-heavy with a particular reliance on senior Darius Johnson-Odom, who can play both spots in the backcourt, but has settled into a role as the shooting guard, where he’s averaging 19 ppg. Johnson-Odom can penetrate and hit the three-point shot. He’s paired up with point guard Junior Cadougan, a perfect foil in that he can dish and find the open man.
Senior forward Jae Crowder has been the main man on the frontline, but at 6’6”, he needed help from someone a little bigger. He’s found it in Davante Gardner, a 6’8” sophomore whose averaging 10 points/5 rebounds a night and is gradually playing a bigger role.
The Golden Eagles drew a tough early conference schedule and consecutive road losses at Syracuse and Georgetown dropped them to 1-2 in the league. Their current six-game win streak has come mostly at home, with four wins in the friendly confines of downtown Milwaukee over Pitt, St. John’s, Louisville and a surprisingly good South Florida team who is 6-3 in the Big East.
Johnson-Odom has been the centerpiece of the surge, churning out anywhere from 17 to 26 points a night in each game, while different players have stepped up around him. Gardner has played his best basketball in this span and being the only true inside player, that’s something that will have to continue if the team is going to keep winning. Crowder has filled his responsibility of being a reliable second option in the offense.
Marquette hosts Seton Hall on Tuesday and the odds say the winning streak will continue. Then on Saturday they go to Notre Dame, a trip that signals the start of more difficult road tests. Down the stretch in February, MU will have to play at UConn, West Virginia and Cincinnati. To date, they’ve shown they can match up at home and beat who they’re supposed to on the road. That’s enough to have a nice season and get a decent seed in the NCAA Tournament (they’re currently a #5 in Joe Lunardi’s Bracketology on ESPN.com). But if this team wants to bring home an unlikely Big East title, then tough road games will have to be won.
Cincinnati (15-7, 5-4): On January 18, Cincinnati had beaten UConn on the road and was riding high, just a game back of Syracuse, with the win over the Huskies joining a road win at Georgetown. The Bearcats are a team similar to Marquette in that they rely very heavily on the backcourt. There’s no one clear scorer in the way MU goes to Johnson-Odom, but the trio of Cashmere Wright, Dion Dixon and Sean Kilpatrick is well-balanced, with Wright running the offense, Kilpatrick shooting the trey and Dixon a 14 ppg scorer. Down low senior Yancy Gates was playing the basketball of his career, as the talented 6’9” forward overcame the inconsistencies that often plagued him, and delivered a steady 13/10 average each night.
Then came an overtime loss at West Virginia, something not alarming in of itself, and when Syracuse lost to Notre Dame the same day, the Bearcats were still within a game of the conference lead. It set up a head-to-head game with the Orange in Cincinnati, but the home team only shot 34 percent in a seven-point loss. This past weekend came the biggest alarm bell when they again shot poorly and lost at Rutgers. Gates has been a constant, playing as well now as he did in the good times, but the backcourt has been up and down and sophomore forward Justin Jackson has not developed for Cincy the way Gardner did for Marquette.
A week off couldn’t have come at a better time for the Bearcats, who don’t play again until Saturday and then it’s a home game against DePaul. As far as the conference championship goes, I suspect that this losing streak was more a case of the team being pulled back to the median, as Cincinnati just isn’t deep enough up front to win a championship in the Big East. What they are good enough to do is make the NCAA Tournament and be a decent threat to advance, and that’s why righting the ship now is so important. The Bearcats now look up at five teams in the Big East, are tied in the loss column with three others and have Seton Hall right behind them. In this conference, things can get away quickly and Lunardi currently projects Cincy as a #10 seed, dipping down to close to the end of the at-larges. It’s imperative that head coach Mick Cronin use the week off and easy home game to steady the ship.